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#120. Killer of Sheep - Review

Written and directed by Charles Burnett while attending UCLA’s film department, Killer of Sheep (1977) forgoes cinematic snobbery for poetic sincerity, creating a narrative masterpiece that defies Aristotelian conventions and instead focuses on the beautiful flourish of the human soul. While the film’s lack of structure may be mistaken for simplicity, Killer of Sheep is anything but, creating a sorrowful and frustrating look at the senselessness of existence. While excising the convolutions associated with artificial plot, Burnett injects realism uninhibited by circumstance or dulled by excess polish.

The film opens with a father saying to his son, “start learning what life is about now.” Perhaps the only important lesson a man must impart to his child, but in Killer of Sheep it is made clear this is a lesson never completely understood. Stan (Henry G. Sanders) is the father. An African American living in Watts in 1977, Stan is a free man, but like everyone below the poverty line he is still a slave to a life of drudgery. To support his family he works tirelessly in a local slaughterhouse, grinding away day after day in an effort to sustain an existence he tries to appreciate, but cannot enjoy. His wife, played by Kaycee Moore but never given a name, sits patiently by her man’s side as he struggles to come to grips with his state of being. His hurt is her hurt, but what are her options? Her reality is made up of concrete and distracted by friendly gossip and banality, patiently waiting for the rare moments when her man takes her in his arms and allows her soul to enter his. This is a life not built on choices, but only reactions to the confines put upon them by the environment they were born into. Burnett wastes little footage portraying the duties of a slaughterhouse worker, which keeps the obvious subtext of Stan butchering sheep from being too on the nose.  The director’s (perhaps) conscious decision to trust his audience is what elevates the material from common film school pretentiousness to what may only be defined as art.

Those distracted or focusing on the film’s African American base is too easily blinded by the surface. A chronicle of humanity, the color of the protagonists is quickly forgotten, and Stan, the man, the father, the husband, the weak and the strong; only serves as a vessel of thematic assimilation. Who could not see the worried concerns of their own father in Stan’s tired eyes, or the face of their mother desperately trying to connect with her man like Stan’s wife? Burnett’s sincere portrayal of African American life made the film important, but the director’s singular ability to capture this brotherhood of mortality for which we are all members of is what makes this film powerful. Burnett’s film succeeds at capturing the simplistic languor of life. The mundane realities invisible to all of those forced to experience them is showcased in Killer of Sheep as poetically as the moments that come to define one’s own existence.

Also, I do realize my posts have been few and far between as of late, and I apologize. With school quickly ramping up towards the end of the summer I have to keep my priorities straight, and sadly CU must take a backseat to everything else. I will do my best to post, but don't expect much until the end of the semester in the middle of May. Til then keep leaving comments and sharing the site! 

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